When it comes to damage control inside the human body, particularly with cells and tissue (like that found in the lungs), few nutrients or minerals can act with the healing power and relief that N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) brings to the table, or to the lungs, or to the liver, or to . . . well you get the idea.
NAC is an amino acid that for several decades have been used by pharmaceutical companies as a key, low-cost compound incorporated into some of its patented drugs, mainly those that can provide cold and flu sufferers with relief from symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and thick phlegm, per lifeextension.com.
A Cysteine Transformation that Benefits Us
Central to NAC’s various properties is its involvement in restoring intracellular levels to glutathione (GSH), which is the compound that provides our bodies with one of their most robust antioxidant defenses. As livestrong.com puts it, our bodies actually convert NAC to just cysteine, which is then transformed into glutathione.
Among its many characteristics in that regard, NAC has been shown capable of warding off acetaminophen toxicity (from overuse) and acute liver failure as well as influenza, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (i.e., emphysema, chronic bronchitis, etc.) and helicobacter pylori, a potentially lethal pathogen, per lifeextension.com, that has been identified as the bacterial enemy behind stomach ulcers.
Food Sources of NAC
First, the bad news: NAC itself is not found naturally in food sources. The good news? Cysteine, which is what NAC is converted into once it enters our body (via herbal supplement, presumably), can be found in many foods that are high in protein. A word to the wise, though, when it comes to supplements; while NAC supplements generally are regarded as quite safe, play it safe yourself and consult with a physician or licensed nutritionist before starting a NAC regimen.
Here are some of those high-protein foods that contain cysteine:
- Ricotta cheese
- Cottage cheese
- Red pepper
- Soy beans
- Wheat germ
Much of what NAC can do for us in terms of health benefits rests in its anti-inflammatory properties, which, per lifeextension.com, “derives from its capacity to modulate expression of genes for myriad signaling molecules in the inflammatory response.” For instance, NAC blocks the activity of pro-inflammatory cytokines once we have been exposed to components of bacterial cells and infection with the influenza A virus.
Here is a rundown of some of NAC’s more notable health benefits:
- Antioxidant protection: NAC’s attributes as an antioxidant supplement gives it the potential to help protect us from free radicals and unstable compounds produced by the likes of pollution, alcohol, and cigarette smoke. It can’t do it all on its own, though; prudent lifestyle choices are a factor as well.
- Cognitive benefits: Per allglutathionebenefits.com, “Individuals with bipolar disorder who supplemented NAC daily were found to have significant improvements in mood, global functioning, and social/occupational functioning.” NAC’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties have also been shown to reduce irritability in autistic children.
- Degenerative diseases: A study published in a 2003 edition of Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, per livestrong.com, revealed that NAC could perhaps help treat diseases by protecting healthy cells from damage. Such diseases include Parkinson’s disease (as mentioned above) as well as Alzheimer’s disease. NAC’s anti-inflammatory characteristics are at work here as well.
- Flu: NAC has been shown to be effective in warding off seasonal influenza and similar illnesses producing flu-like symptoms. In the last 10 years, studies have also shown that NAC can slow or prevent virus replication and the activity of pro-inflammatory molecules in H5N1-infected cells.
- Heavy metal toxicity: Materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium can produce an excess of free radicals while impeding our natural antioxidant defenses. NAC can help counter this by cutting down on the amount these heavy metals proliferate in some bodily tissues.
- Liver health: For years, NAC has been a part of clinical therapy used to treat acetaminophen acute liver failure, in effect helping to detoxify the liver and restoring function, per allglutathionebenefits.com.
- Male infertility: Oxidative stress and antioxidant activity have been identified as factors that have diminished male fertility. NAC won’t cure infertility, but it has been shown to enhance sperm volume, motility, and viscosity of semen, per allglutathionebenefits.com.
- Metabolic disorders: NAC can increase the insulin sensitivity in patients dealing with difficult metabolic conditions, per lifeextension.com.
- Muscle fatigue: NAC can be a boon to exercise enthusiasts in that it can help reduce muscle fatigue during extended workouts, such as a long-distance run or bicycle race. Likewise, it can also decrease pulmonary muscle fatigue, thus enhancing lung function and stamina, per allglutathionebenefits.com. It does this by promoting production of GSH, the loss of which during a workout can lead to the fatigue.